CNN Black History Month

Birmingham enshrines civil rights struggle

From Correspondent Don Baird

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- To the world, Birmingham has long been remembered as the Southern city where peaceful protests often turned violent.

Racist bombings were so pervasive during the civil rights movement that the city once was known as "Bombingham."

News accounts pictured snarling dogs and water canons repelling demonstrators.

Now, Birmingham welcomes visitors with a sweeping visual testament to its civil rights struggle. Sculptures, including a likeness of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., are dotted throughout a park, remembered as "A place of both revolution and reconciliation."

The park is where local authorities attacked demonstrators in the name of segregation, and it's now part of a Birmingham civil rights district.

The focal point of the district is the three-year-old Civil Rights Institute, which U.S. News & World Report ranked as one of America's top 10 museums.

Examples of years of violent confrontation are preserved the museum, including a replica of a Greyhound bus that once carried civil rights supporters known as Freedom Riders.

There's also a replica of the cell where King crafted his famous "Letters from Birmingham Jail," in which he refused a request from white clergy that he abandon his Birmingham campaign.

Through a series of galleries, visitors can see a segregated Birmingham and hear how the defiant South refused to yield to national desegregation pressures.

The institute also chronicles the city's early life as a steel and mining town, when African Americans worked jobs most whites didn't want. The museum shows how blacks responded to being shut out.

The Black Barons baseball team, for whom a teen-age Willie Mays played, also is featured. The more than 300,000 tourists who visit the museum each year can gain new insight into the civil rights struggle.

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